Recently I have been sent away somewhere. Back to school. Over twenty years ago now, silly, isn't it. I didn't really want to go but I was sent there by a few recent blog comments. If any experience in my life has marked me for decades it's attending that school, seeing as how I credit it with pushing me firmly into the closet and setting me up for my first decade in adult life as a clinical depressive. Even now as I'm in a far better condition thinking about my time there can send me perilously close to a panic attack.
Funny how a supposedly "normal" experience can do that to you. I mean, the other kids, my classmates, they don't have panic attacks about the place. Most of them probably never even think about it now, lucky sods.
I attended what we here in the UK call a "Public school", a confusing description for what is really a private boys school (our public schooling system is normally referred to as "State school"). I was there because I managed to pass an extra exam and earned an assisted place, part of an initiative from the Government in the 1980s to broaden the social base of such schools and encourage social mobility, as they saw it. Maggie (Thatcher, for those on Mars in the '80s) paid my school fees, my classmates were all the rich kids, and I was the outsider. It's debatable whether Maggie's scheme was money well spent overall, I guess there must have been kids who really were pulled out of the mire by it somewhere and I know I have a better education than I would have otherwise because of it, but I feel it taught me the hard way that there is a hell of a lot more to growing up than a so-called "good" education.
My mother is a teacher. To her, success comes through academic achievement alone, and she wanted her children to have the best opportunities available. I don't blame her for that, it stood her in very good stead for her career and she similarly wanted the best for us. So she put a lot of effort and personal sacrifice into ensuring that all of her children achieved funded places at the local private schools that had the highest achievements. To this day I am approached by acquaintances who have found out where I went to school, anxious to assuage their middle-class guilt about considering sending little Tarquin or whoever to the same place, and I am afraid they are often shocked by the toned-down-for-polite-company version of my views on the subject.
I'm acutely aware that it would be too easy to couch any description of someone's schooldays as an appallingly vomitory piece of mis-lit. After all, teenage years are difficult for everybody, not just closeted t-girls, and I'm sure you won't find many teenagers with a complete absence of scars. So I'll resist the urge to wallow, and limit myself to observation as far as I can.
People who didn't go to a school like mine often have certain preconceived ideas about such institutions and their pupils. Often based upon lurid tales of corporal punishment and homosexual shenanigans handed down from the sensational fiction of a different century, they have a basis in truth if you've read accounts from the 1950s such as the autobiography of the UK broadcaster John Peel, but by the 1980s such practices were long gone. What hadn't gone was the atmosphere of institutionalised bullying upon which the past excesses must have thrived. It's fair to say some of the teachers would not have found employment in the state sector at the time and would be the target of frequent legal actions were they still teaching today. Add to that about five hundred barely controlled teenage boys for whom Daddy's chequebook meant they lived consequence-free, and an ethos that placed academic achievement far above any form of personal or emotional development and you had just about the worst environment in which to place any youngster, let alone one with gender issues.
I was picked on when I was at school. I was different, I didn't come from the same background as them. My parents picked me up in a tatty old Allegro or a Peugeot pickup truck rather than an Audi or a BMW, I was worse than crap at sport and had no interest in their games anyway and I just didn't fit in with them. How can you fit in with nasty kids when all you want to do is dress up like your sister? Back then if asked in confidence I'd have told you I was a transvestite, with such little information available I even wondered as a teenager whether I might be gay, something I pretty soon realised I wasn't when I encountered gay people at university a few years later. In an atmosphere of constant homophobia at school the one thing I find amazing is that I can't remember ever being accused of that particular transgression.
To deal with it all I became an aggressive little sod. Not so little as it happens, I was bigger than all the other kids so if something got physical it was unlikely the perpetrator would make the same mistake a second time. I learned the bloke act too well, so much so that it took me twenty years to lose it. I learned that kids who live consequence free will lie and cheat their way out of any situation and I also learned never to trust people in authority unless they've earned it because they will invariably take the easiest-looking option, and if someone said the big kid done it then that was always good enough for them. Most of all I learned to lock the girl away in case she ever peeked out enough to be discovered, and for that alone if not for all the rest I hate that school.
It would be unfair to portray only the negative side of the experience though. Aside from the ineffectual intellectual ditherers and sadistic scum among our teachers there were one or two inspiring people who really did try to make a difference. In particular I feel lucky to have been one of the last generations to have been educated by people who fought in the Second World War. Having lived through that they stood apart from their colleagues in having entered the profession to make the world a better place rather than to just provide a career. If I hadn't been taught about Shakespeare and Chaucer by someone who genuinely cared about his pupils rather than just the results they would achieve, I suspect I would have left school a lot more screwed up than I did.
So I had a "good" education, British style. My parents genuinely thought they were doing their best for me and Maggie probably got value for her money because I passed my exams. Would I have had a better time of it had I gone to the same school as all my primary school class? Difficult to say, though I suspect I would have. My exam results would probably have been different, but I think the value of attending a co-educational school alongside people whose ways I'd spent the previous six years learning would have outweighed that.
When you are a child, you believe every path you are guided along by your parents or teachers must be the right one. It is only later that you can sit down and analyse where things went wrong. It's easy to say here "No child of mine will go through that...", but the fact is my children, should I have any, will also face the consequences of their parents' unwise choices for them. I had better ensure that none of my choices have such a lasting effect.